11.0098 challenges & other Online matters

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Thu, 12 Jun 1997 12:15:14 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 98.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Thu, 12 Jun 1997 11:35:29 +0100 (BST)
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: news

In the Guardian Online section for Thursday 12 June....

(1) Keith Devlin, "University Challenge".

As has happened in N. America, representatives of what we call "industry" in
Britain -- I think allegorically of some terribly industrious person
constantly repeating good advice referring to the habits of bees and ants
while efficiently accomplishing everything he or she has set out to do --
has warned "that employers may soon start to boycott universities and
establish their own house educational units." They're worried about quality.
One U.K. manufacturer, Unipart, is worried enough to have invested 4 million
pounds to set up its own in-house training unit.

What the Confederation of British Industry is arguing for, however, is "an
expansion of higher education, with access for all." According to Devlin,
the real threat to universities isn't these in-house training units, rather
the possibility that we will not be able to respond to something much more
difficult. "The real agent of change is already among us, and growing
rapidly: information technology and the Web. The development of information
technology has provided and alternative path to what used to be one of the
principal benefits of attending a university" -- access to information.
Devlin goes on to make what seem to me are highly exaggerated claims for the
kind and quality of information currently available: "Today, all you need is
a PC and a modem to access a far greater source of information than can be
found in any single university library." How recently, one wonders, has he
been in such a library? Is there a single subject for which a single aisle
in the stacks of a major research library would provide more and better
information than all the World Wide Web? If many of us have our way, his
claims may not be so wide of the mark one day, but meanwhile we might give
some thought to the consequences of people at large believing Devlin's
claims. Or, what may be worse in the short-term, of senior university
administrators who have forgotten what the inside of a library looks like
believing these claims. (Please note that the relative clause in the
previous sentence is restrictive!)

Perhaps it would be more productive for us to distinguish between (a) what
face-to-face instruction in a university setting does best, and (b) what the
Internet does best -- and for whom. I would argue that only where the latter
improves on the former should we push for a change in the way we educate our
students. Clearly, however, we need to be very clear about both (a) and (b)
in the face of poorly informed but influential public discourse.

Who is better equipped to engage in this debate than we are?

(2) Duncan Campbell, "Wig, gown and laptop".

Big changes to the legal profession, it seems. Here again a sorting of what
face-to-face encounter does best from what IT can do is called for. "So
while some lawyers may dread the cost-efficient litigation that IT systems
could bring, defendants and claimants may rest assured that robotic justice
from Judge Dredd will be staying firmly in the comic books." Great to have
some good news, yes?

(3) Ken Cottrill, "Unplugged, unwanted and underground".

Please, the next time you hear some environmentally naive person talk about
"saving trees" direct them to this article. "Fifty-five million computers
will be landfilled in the US by the year 2005, according to a preliminary
report by Carnegie Mellon University's green design initiative due to be
published later this month..." Furthermore, "for every four purchases of new
computers in the US, another three used machines are lying abandoned in
storage." Redeploying the old kit is problematic for many reasons and will
not be done, according to Cottrill, until it is required by law.
"Landfilling is fraught with difficulty because some units pose an
environmental risk, because they contain toxic elements such as lead."

The article ends with cautious optimism. Some companies, such as Xerox, are
requiring their designers to think about recycling of components. It seems
that the current estimate of landfilled computers in the US (55 million) is
considerably less than a similar prediction in 1991 (148 million).

Then there's the statistics about increase in paper usage directly
attributable to computer use.

(4) Kevin Wilson, "Witness for the elocution".

New speech-recognition technology for the ordinary user is within reach of
recognising continuous speech -- as opposed to speech in which the speaker
pauses between each word. As with machine translation software, some
humorous errors have been recorded, e.g. the name of the new French Prime
Minister, Lionel Jospin, was rendered "the analogy of sperm" by the beta
version of this technology. Soon like Star Trek: "Computer, locate all the
places in English literature where...."?

See <http://www.guardian.co.uk/> for the online version of Online.


Dr. Willard McCarty
Senior Lecturer, Centre for Computing in the Humanities
King's College London
London WC2R 2LS
+44 (0)171 873 2784 voice; 873 5081 fax